In an area of Tennessee where economic development has often centered on large-scale enterprises, LaunchTN’s Biz Foundry accelerator is focusing on the little guy. And Jeff Brown wouldn’t have it any other way.
As executive director and president, Brown brings both entrepreneurial savvy and a lifetime of Cumberland County residency to Biz Foundry. He’ll quickly talk about how he believes that local city and county governments do a good job of recruitment, but how something else was needed for the single operator with a good idea and maybe not much else. In fact, he may have made his point a little too well.
“I spent years telling people that we needed to help those guys, because they had a lot of potential,” Brown says. “After 20 years of hearing me, a friend of mine asked me to put my money where my mouth was and manage the accelerator project. I’d have to run this accelerator. At the time it was being operated out of Roane State Community College, and I didn’t want to work under a school. The third time they caught me when I was selling a business. At that point, I finally said yes.”
Independent voice with strong connections
Having run several businesses in and around Cookeville on his own and in partnership with others, Brown says he knows what the area’s startup community needs — advice and support. That said, however, those can’t come in the same packages they do in an urban environment.
“We’re trying to figure out how to do rural entrepreneurship” Brown says. “We can’t be like the accelerators in Nashville or Chattanooga, because we don’t have the business resources. But what we can do is provide the support both here, and from the other accelerators through that statewide connectivity, that will make a huge impact for our people. That’s what Launch Tennessee brings to a rural accelerator like ours.”
Biz Foundry also takes advantage of the educational infrastructure it does have in place, such as nearby Tennessee Tech, while also leveraging the accelerator network to get its clients in front of venture capital providers in the state. It’s a balancing act, but Brown says it works.
“We are able to concentrate on basic entrepreneurial education, and provide classes and workshops on subjects such as coding,” he explains. “We are talking to people who might want to launch a computer-programming company here, but they’ll need people who know how to code. If we train one on how to run a company, and others on how to do the work, then everyone’s ready.”
Coding becomes special niche
In fact, the coding education provided by Biz Foundry has become a cottage industry of sorts. There was no source of that kind of training in the accelerator’s 14-country coverage area, Brown says, and now the accelerator’s Tennessee Code Academy has become a go-to regional program for exposing young people to a career path in programming. “A lot of focus is put on manufacturing in rural areas and there is nothing wrong with that, but we would like to add the idea of digital manufacturing as a viable option.”
“We don’t have the start-up depth to have a big cohort one or two times a year; there aren’t a lot of hipsters wanting to come to Cookeville for 13 weeks,” Brown laughs. “But we can do is work in the areas, like programming, where we can make a difference for local companies and their employees. That’s the nice thing about Launch Tennessee — they allow us to be entrepreneurial.
“My whole board is composed of people who have built companies, and they’re not big on a lot of oversight rules and regulations,” he continues. “We are all about education, mentorship, and outreach. And once we get someone ready, we can move them to one of the other accelerators who can help them keep going. This accelerator network works so well in that regard. We can start a little company in the middle of nowhere, and then get it in front of the larger organizations that will help it grow. Launch Tennessee lets us get up every day and work on what works, and that’s meaning success for us, and for the people we are looking to help.”